Tanaka Farms located in Irvine, CA, with its daily influx of visitors participating in educational farm tours and picking their own fruits and vegetables from its fields, has become a de facto family farm for all of Orange County. And, with production agriculture sadly on the wane in the county, farmer Glenn Tanaka is more than happy to offer community members county-wide the opportunity to engage in a unique family-oriented farm experience.
As his son Kenny Tanaka explains, “My Dad likes to say: ‘Before, everybody had an aunt, or uncle, or family member that farmed. Now, hopefully we can be everybody’s family local farm.’”
The small farm’s resourcefulness, embrace of the broader community, and adoption of an agritourism-focused revenue model have enabled it to survive and thrive for four generations.
The Tanaka family has a long history of farming in California, dating back to the 1920s when Kenny Tanaka’s great‑grandfather, Teruo, immigrated to California from Hiroshima, Japan and started farming in the Fresno area.
In the mid-1940s, the Tanaka family moved to Orange County and the successive generations, including Kenny, his grandfather George and father Glenn, have been farming there ever since.
Over four decades and up until his death in 1998, George Tanaka and his heirs ran a successful farming enterprise that at one point spread across 200 acres of leased Orange County land. The farm thrived, selling strawberries and vegetables to eager and loyal customers at a number of popular roadside farm stands.
In the mid-1990s, however, urban development and rising land prices pushed the Tanaka’s to downsize. So in 1998, Glenn Tanaka signed a lease to relocate the farm to a piece of farmland that was in the process of being subdivided for the construction of a golf course. The tenant farmer occupying the land at that time, not wanting to downsize his operation to a smaller parcel on the site, did not sign a new lease. “Luckily, we came upon the place and we took it over at that point,” says Kenny.
The signing of the lease for the 30-acre parcel, which is adjacent to the Irvine Open Space Preserve, coincided with a slow down in business that proved fortuitous. To make up for revenue shortfall, Glenn decided to experiment with agritourism and offer farm tours at the new site. It turned out that he was onto something and the tours went so well that when the last roadside stand (located in Cypress) was lost to development in 2002, Kenny says, “[M]y Dad started ramping up the agritourism part of the farm and made it the main source of income.”
Increasing onsite farm income to a level that can fully support Tanaka Farms’ operation has been beneficial to family and staff alike, who were previously spending a lot of time off the farm. “We were doing a lot of farmers markets at that time, probably about 30 to 35 markets a week, two or three a day, easily,” Kenny says. “We were going all the way to Los Angeles, up to Palos Verdes, Santa Monica and doing the local ones around here also.”
Today, the farm offers local residents educational farm tours and pick-your-own produce opportunities (they grow some 60 different crops throughout the year). The Tanaka’s also operate an onsite farm stand and a CSA with a membership base of 450-500 subscribers.
Kenny says location is key to the farm’s agritourism success. “You cannot tell you are in the middle of the city. We are kind of in a little valley so you don’t see many homes around. There is a different atmosphere here.” He continues, “If we had to replicate it somewhere else in Orange County, we probably wouldn’t get the same amount of traffic.”
Tanaka Farms gets about 20,000 visitors a year, with the largest crowds showing up during strawberry season (March-June) and during October’s Pumpkin Patch. Kenny says that a successful October is important for the farm’s success. “Now that we are based almost all on agritourism, if we had rain or anything during the month of October, we would have a pretty tough year.”